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M. B. Synge

Napoleon's Retreat from Moscow

"No pitying voice commands a halt,

No courage can dispel the dire assault:

Distracted, spiritless, benumbed, and blind,

Whole legions sink—and in one instant find

Burial and death."


T HE story of Napoleon's advance to and retreat from Moscow, is one of the most pathetic in human history. Full of spirit, the Grand Army had started, but already difficulties were beginning. It took three days to cross the Niemen, by means of pontoon bridges thrown across; but they reached the far side unmolested, and pursued their way over the sandy wastes. The solitude of the way, the sultry heat of a Russian midsummer, and drenching thunderstorms depressed the spirits of the army. By the time they reached Vilna—some seventy miles on—10,000 horses had perished, 30,000 stragglers had deserted, and there were 25,000 sick men, and the transports as yet ever so far behind.

It was not till July 16, that an advance was possible, and the Grand Army could once more march on its way to Moscow. Fever and disease now played their part, and food ran short. No human genius could have achieved the stupendous task, Napoleon had now undertaken. So fearful was the prospect, that Napoleon seriously thought of putting off the invasion till the spring. But the temptation of conquest was strong upon him, and once more the great host moved forward to Smolensko. The Russians moved out of each city as the French advanced.

At last, on September 7, the two armies met some seventy miles from Moscow, and a tremendous battle was fought at Borodino. Both sides claimed the victory, which neither had won, though 40,000 French and 30,000 Russians lay wounded or dead on the battlefield.

The Grand Army, now so reduced in size, reached Moscow a week later. There lay the famous city at last at the foot of the hill, with its gardens, its churches, its river, its steeples crowned with golden balls, all flashing and blazing in the bright morning sunlight of that autumn day.

"Moscow! Moscow!" cried the delighted soldiers.

"Yes, here at last is the famous city," said Napoleon, reining in his horse.

The conqueror entered his new capital, expecting to be met with the keys of the city and the submission of Alexander. What was his surprise, then, to find the city empty and deserted! The houses were closed, the streets were bare. To add to this disappointment, flames were soon seen bursting forth from various quarters. The Russians had set their capital on fire!

For three days and nights the fire raged furiously, till from the very Kremlin or citadel, where Napoleon was staying, flames issued forth. A great part of the wonderful city was destroyed, and the question of food-supply again faced Napoleon. The Russians had swept the district bare.

Still Napoleon hoped to bring Alexander to terms, but the Tsar's proclamation to his people showed, that he understood the peril of the French in Moscow: "The enemy is in deserted Moscow, without means of existence. He has the wreck of his army in Moscow. He is in the heart of Russia, without a single Russian at his feet, while our forces are increasing round him. To escape famine, he must pass through the close ranks of our brave soldiers."

Still Napoleon lingered on. September passed, October had begun. The idea of spending a winter in the blackened city, with only salted horse-flesh to eat, was intolerable, and at last the order to retreat was given.

It was the 18th of October, just a month after their entry into the capital, that the French army once more filed through the gates. There were about 100,000 fighting men now, with a number of sick. Besides these, were a number of followers, stragglers, prisoners, baggage-bearers,—men of all nations, speaking all languages,—one idea of escaping the terrors of a Russian winter hurrying them onwards. So far the weather was fine. A few days after their start, a Russian army blocked their way. A battle was fought, and the Grand Army was further reduced to 65,000 men. On they hastened. They could rest and get food at Smolensko, if only they could reach it, before the snow began. On November 6, winter suddenly came upon them. The clear blue sky disappeared, the sun was seen no more, bitter blasts of wind cut through them; and then came thick flakes of snow, darkening the whole air. Through whirlwinds of snow and sleet, the troops forced their dreary way. Their clothes froze on them, icicles hung from their beards. Those who sank down from very weariness, rose no more. All order was at an end. Muskets fell from the frozen hands that carried them. Before, above, around them, was nothing but snow. Now and again they tried to light fires to thaw their clothes and cook their wretched meal of horse-flesh.

"Smolensko, Smolensko," they murmured to one another.

It was November 14, before they reached this longed-for goal and literally fought for food. Two-thirds of the army had perished in twenty-five days, and much was yet before them. They must push on quickly,—push on through bands of attacking Russians all the way. The firmness of Napoleon never left him. In the midst of the wildest swamp, in snowstorms and darkness, by night and day, he never lost sight of the fact, that this handful of hungry, frost-bitten men was the Grand Army of France, and that he, their leader, was the conqueror of Europe. They were now within three days march of the river Beresina, which had to be crossed, when news arrived, that the Russians had broken down the bridge. The Emperor struck the ground with his stick, and, raising his eyes to heaven, cried, "Is it written there that henceforth every step shall be a fault?"

The situation was indeed desperate. They must march on and cross the river under fire, and across bridges of their own making. In the midst of their sufferings, they never doubted their Emperor. His genius had always triumphed; he would lead them to victory yet. On they dragged—on towards the fatal Beresina. It was November 25, and late that evening, the first pile was driven into the muddy bank of the river for the bridge. All night they worked, up to their necks in water, struggling with pieces of ice carried down by the stream. The lights from the Russian fires gleamed from the opposite side. One after another his generals tried to persuade Napoleon to escape, but he refused to desert his army in the face of so great danger.

All went well for a time. Napoleon and some 2000 soldiers were across, and the bridge was heavily weighted with masses of struggling men, when with a thundering crash and a cry of horror the bridge broke in the middle. The Russians now rushed to the attack, and terrible indeed was the onslaught. Thousands were drowned, thousands were killed. The scene was terrible. On November 29, Napoleon and the remains of the Grand Army pushed on towards Vilna, where they arrived after a fearful march through ice and snow. Here at last the Emperor left them, to push on to Paris as fast as he might.

Then, and not till then, the Grand Army lost heart. The weather grew worse; the very birds froze in the air and dropped dead at their feet. On they tramped, with their eyes cast down. To stop meant certain death. The only sound in the stillness, was the dull tread of their own feet in the snow and the feeble groans of the dying. Their only food was boiled horse-flesh, together with a little rye meal, kneaded into muffins with snow-water, and seasoned with the powder of their cartridges.

Out of the 600,000 men who had so proudly crossed the river Niemen seven months before, for the conquest of Russia, only 20,000 staggered across the frozen river. The rest of that mighty host "lay at rest under Nature's winding-sheet of snow."

Just a week before Christmas, Napoleon reached the Tuileries.

"All had gone well," he said. "Moscow was in his power; but the cold of the winter had caused a general calamity, by reason of which the army had sustained very great losses."